The Need for Wisdom

Kevin Carey’s new book, The End of College, is subtitled, “Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.” The University of Everywhere, however, could just as easily be called the University of Nowhere because it exists only on the internet.

Minerva University, named after the Roman goddess of Wisdom, is just this type of university. Minerva is the brain-child of multi-millionaire and former Snapfish president, Ben Nelson. As a freshman at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Nelson concluded that there was a more rational way to structure higher education, one predicated on certain modes of analysis and skills. All students should be required to take the same courses their freshmen year – formal analysis (mathematics); empirical analysis (science); complex system (social sciences), and multimodal communication (writing, rhetoric, and public speaking). These four courses constitute to the basis of all subsequent study at Minerva.

Supplementing its formal curriculum is its informal curriculum which consists mainly of traveling the world with ones’ fellow students. The first year, all students live in San Francisco; the second year, in either Berlin or Buenos Aires (students get to choose); the third year, in either Hong Kong or Mumbai; and the fourth year, in New York or London. In each city, there will be “student life experts” who will arrange certain cultural activities for students. Because all of their courses are online, students are free to travel the world.

And the cost? $28,000 a year, including airfare. This is only a few thousand dollars more than the cost of attending a public university and about half the cost of going to an elite school.

Investors are convinced that this is a winning formula – an elite, “low-cost,” online liberal arts college – if in fact this is a liberal arts college. Minerva has $95 million of venture capital behind it and is accredited through its relationship to the Keck Graduate Institute – part of the Claremont Consortium. Its founding board of advisors included not only Ben Nelson, but also Larry Summers – former President of Harvard University, former Economic Advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, and former head of the World Bank – and Bob Kerry, former governor and senator from Nebraska and former President of the New School. Stephen Kosslyn, Minerva’s founding Dean, is a neuroscientist and psychologist, and former Dean of Social Science at Harvard University.

But will it, as it name suggests, make its graduates wise? Does it even aspire to create graduates who are wise or is the name simply a marketing ploy, chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with its educational objectives?

Mathematics is an important tool for understanding reality, and the knowledge that can be gained from the natural and social sciences can be both intrinsically interesting and useful, but neither formal analysis nor empirical analysis is intended to make one wise. Wisdom is not simply another word for formal analysis or data. And although public speaking is also a useful tool, and traveling in foreign lands is educational, neither is likely to promote wisdom. In fact, both can work against acquiring wisdom. The art of winning arguments is not the same as being correct.

Wisdom is the appropriate use of knowledge and is often associated with age, with a specific cultural tradition, and sometimes with place. There is Christian wisdom, Jewish wisdom, traditional Chinese wisdom, Navajo wisdom, and so on, but there is no wisdom as such, no wisdom without context. The late anthropologist Keith Basso wrote a book entitled, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Langue among the Western Apache, in which he chronicles how, for these people, wisdom resides in a culture, rooted in a place, passed down from one generation to another over time. It is possible that, in other traditions, wisdom is less closely tied to a specific location, but it is hard to image what wisdom might be if it is not rooted in a particular cultural tradition and set of values.

What is striking about Minerva is that each of these attributes commonly associated with wisdom – age, tradition, and place – is either absent or explicitly rejected. Faculty (the elders) are present only online; the kind of knowledge that is promoted – formal analysis, empirical analysis, and social sciences – is not rooted in any cultural tradition and is free of moral and aesthetic values; and students are required to move from place to place.

Of course in not seeking wisdom, Minerva is not alone. Despite its name, Minerva’s educational objective is personal “success,” an educational goal shared by almost all colleges and universities, both public and private, elite and non-elite.

In the past, colleges and universities were less concerned with personal success than they were in helping young people gain wisdom and insight. We cannot simply return to the past, and the wisdom of the past was in many respects flawed. But it seems exceedingly dangerous to deny that wisdom exists (or that it is exists only in the mind of each individual) and for colleges and universities to turn a blind eye to the idea that knowledge needs to be placed within a moral context. We need to have a deep conversion – not simply about the cost of higher education or how technology can make it both more affordable and profitable – but about its function in society. What would a university committed to wisdom and to serving society look like? Separated from wisdom, knowledge and technology are potentially dangerous – indeed lethal – forces.